There were 271,000 households recorded as homeless in England only at the start of 2023, according to charity Shelter, but the scale of homelessness is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify. There are many different types of homelessness, for starters. It’s not just rough sleeping — there are people trapped in temporary accommodation or hostels and shelters.
And it is not always a visible problem. Hidden homelessness, also known as sofa surfing, is virtually impossible to count as people staying at friends or relatives homes are out of sight and often don’t consider themselves to be homeless.
The Big Issue is committed to tackling poverty and preventing homelessness. With the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis left in its wake, scores of UK households remain at risk of falling into homelessness.
It is vital that we have an accurate idea of how many people are homeless in the UK – if you don’t know how many people need help, how can you help them?
That figure is projected to rise beyond 300,000 households on any given night in 2023, the charity warned in its Great Britain Homelessness Monitor report. The report arrived as the country was in a state of flux with the cost of living crisis, rising rents and the withdrawal of emergency measures in place during the pandemic set to see more people fall into insecure positions.
But homelessness is difficult to quantify. There are many different types of homelessness.
One method of counting how many people experience homelessness is keeping track of how many households contacted councils for help with homelessness, known as statutory homelessness.
English councils helped more than 278,000 households with homelessness between April 2021 and March 2022. That’s up 16 per cent on the previous year but nine per cent below pre-Covid levels.
No-fault evictions are a leading driver of homelessness and the Westminster government promised to ban them in 2019. Since then, almost 230,000 private renters have received a section 21 notice, according to Shelter, amounting to one every seven minutes. Ministers are set to axe no-fault evictions in the upcoming Renters’ Reform Bill.
As for Scotland’s latest official homelessness statistics, the number of applications to local authorities for help with homelessness remains lower than before the pandemic but is rising.
There were 28,882 homeless households recorded in 2021/22, up from just over 28,000 in the previous year. That accounts for 32,592 adults and 14,372 children.
In Wales, 11,704 households were assessed as homeless or owed a duty by local authorities to help them into secure accommodation between April 2021 and March 2022. That’s an 11 per cent decrease on the number of households who needed support in 2020/21.
As for the number of people rough sleeping, the latest official count estimated a total of 3,069 people were sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2022 in England, up by a quarter on the 2,440 in 2021. The rise was the first recorded since 2017’s peak.
However, the number of people sleeping rough has grown steadily since 2010, and the number of people counted in 2022 was 74 per cent higher than the 1,768 people spotted 12 years earlier.
Traditionally, the official rough sleeping figures are often thought to be a considerable underestimate as they rely on single-night counts and estimates by local authorities.
New government data shows just how much. A single-night count in September 2022 estimated 2,900 people were sleeping rough across England. But tracking the number of people spotted sleeping rough across the course of September estimated 6,631 people were homeless on the streets. The government has pledged to publish this management information on a quarterly basis as part of its strategy to end rough sleeping in England by 2024
The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain) is thought to be a more accurate method. This tracks the flow of rough sleeping over a longer period with multiple agencies reporting contact with people on the streets. However it only currently operates in London.
Nevertheless, Chain’s annual figures show a much higher number of people sleeping rough although there has been a decline in the last year. The 8,239 rough sleepers spotted on London’s streets between April 2021 and March 2022 was a quarter lower than the 11,018 people recorded in the previous year. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan hailed the progress but warned the cost of living crisis “threatened to reverse these hard-won gains”.
By the end of the year, Chain stats showed the numbers of people sleeping rough on London’s streets were surging. In total, 3,570 people were spotted by outreach workers between October and December – a 21 per cent yearly rise and almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
Almost half of the people including in the count were sleeping rough for the first time. Around 1,700 people were new to the streets, up 29 per cent on the same three months in 2021.
people sleeping rough, which itself was a 21 per cent yearly rise and almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
In 2021/22, 2,129 households reported sleeping rough in the three months before making a homelessness application to their local council while 1,304 households said they’d been rough sleeping the night before.
Both of these figures are lower than any previously recorded since records began in 2002/03.
Counting the number of people rough sleeping is notoriously difficult. Often people can be hidden meaning they are missing from statistics.
This is a particular issue for women who face an increased risk of violence and often choose not to bed down on the streets, instead seeking shelter in places like transport hubs, cafes or even choosing to walk all night instead.
A coalition of homelessness and women’s organisations in London joined forces to tackle the issue in October 2022. The resulting women’s rough sleeping census found 154 women, including trans and non-binary women, sleeping rough in London in a week.
That number was higher than previously thought with an extra 71 women found across 13 London boroughs when the data was compared to the latest official rough sleeping count. Organisers believed the number could be even higher.
People who might be described as “hidden homeless” are often slipping through the cracks. Crisis has estimated that as many as 62 per cent of single homeless people do not show up on official figures.
The Office for National Statistics carried out a review into the scale of hidden homelessness across the UK in March 2023 but statisticians noted that the available information means “it is not currently possible to estimate the true scale of hidden homelessness across the UK”.
However, the review did lay out the many types of hidden homelessness, including sofa surfing with friends or relatives, living in unconventional structures like mobile homes or a tent or overcrowded accommodation or squatting in disused buildings.
ONS statisticians also revealed that women, young people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience hidden homelessness and, therefore, missing from homelessness statistics. This could mean they are unable to access support to help them into a secure, permanent home.
Homelessness is an issue that affects every country and there are different approaches to tackling the issue too.
Finland has perhaps come closest to solving the problem of street homelessness. Their adoption of the Housing First model over the last 30 years has seen rough sleepers given a home alongside intensive wraparound support to help them adapt to their new surroundings and to deal with issues like addiction or mental health problems.
The Housing First model has become a big part of the UK’s response to homelessness and has proven particularly successful in Scotland with England and Wales developing programmes.
But the Finnish success story is the result of a 30-year commitment by successive governments and it remains to be seen whether the Housing First model can play such a significant role in ending homelessness in the UK.
The Westminster government announced it was extending rough sleeping pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Merseyside as part of the strategy to end rough sleeping by 2024.
England has much higher rates of the worst forms of homelessness than the devolved nations and more of its homelessness spending is spent on temporary accommodation compared to prevention and support, academics found
What can you do about it?
If you see a rough sleeper, send details of where and when you see them, as well as a brief description of the person, to StreetLink using their website, app or phone line. StreetLink is operated in partnership by Homeless Link and St Mungo’s. Scotland has no centralised service so you should check for contact details of your local council.
Alerts are monitored by volunteers at St Mungo’swho check information and forward them on to outreach teams. Every day hundreds of alerts are received by StreetLink.
And, of course, for more than 30 years The Big Issue has been on the frontline offering a way out, and one of the best things you can do is to buy this magazine every week, take your copy and support your vendor as they work hard to earn their way out of the poverty trap.
This article is updated regularly with the latest information.
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.